CD and Other Review

Review: Messiaen: Turangalîla Symphonie (Steven Osborne, Cynthia Millar, Bergen PO/Juanjo Mena)

Messiaen described his ten-movement Turangalîla Symphonie (1947-1949) as a song of love, a hymn to joy. Yet a bitter history informs the piece. Fierce irony shapes and drives a startling barrage of traditional and exotic instruments, creating images in the manner of medieval carnival with its mockery of prevailing social orders where comic forms took new and often sinister meanings. In this charged performance with Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra, conductor Juanjo Mena captures the agitation in the work, even catching a sardonic gleam in the composer’s eye. At times, Turangalîla weaves covertly through aggressive forces manoeuvring for narrative dominance. At others it is barefaced, springing from memories of unimaginable horrors the composer endured in a German concentration camp a few years earlier. Mena’s vision of this music is sharp; familiar emotional territory for a conductor born in Vitoria, in northern Spain’s fiercely independent Basque country. With his team of Nordic musicians, he unleashes a phantasmagoric cacophony of jeering whistles, wails and screams. British pianist Steven Osborne is ferociously focused as a major and constant solo voice threading through the drama of contrasting cycles, by turns frenzied and gentle. It is relieved by plaintive, otherworldly cries of anguished love from the ondes…

November 14, 2012
CD and Other Review

Review: Bloch & Bruch (Natalie Clein, BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, Ilan Volkov)

Ever since she won two major competitions as a 16-year-old nearly two decades ago, Natalie Clein has had a reputation in her native Britain not just as one of the finest cellists going around but also as one of the most intelligent, a fact borne out in her extraordinary previous recording of music by Kodály. But that acclaimed disc – one of only a handful of commercial recordings she’s made in her entire career – was only a warm-up for this magnificent new CD of masterpieces for cello and orchestra by Bloch and Bruch. In her succinct addition to the main liner notes, Clein describes Bloch’s “deep sense of longing and loneliness” – qualities which are more than demonstrated in a stunning reading of the immortal Schelomo. The very first notes on solo cello sear the soul, before burning their way deep down in a rich sound mix, and when Ilan Volkov fires up the BBC Scottish Symphony in the big tuttis it’s almost overwhelming. Clein has a way of making the cello wailand keen like a lamenting voice drifting in from some windswept hill, wild and untamed in its spirit but with never a note out of place. And…

November 14, 2012
CD and Other Review

Review: Tchaikovsky: Symphonies Nos 1-3 (London Symphony Orchestra, Valery Gergiev)

As regular readers will know, I’ve often been unimpressed by Gergiev’s sadly variable LSO Mahler cycle, where he often had even less to say about the music than Ashkenazy. I’m happy to say I was entranced by this 2-CD set from beginning to end. For once, the cliché “unjustly neglected” is totally accurate in describing the shameful overlooking of these three genuine masterpieces. The First and Third have long been my favourite Tchaikovsky symphonies; until now my preferred version of No 1 was the youthful Michael Tilson Thomas with his Boston forces, and in the Third either Bernstein’s 1960s New York Philharmonic or Karajan’s 1980s Berlin Phil. Gergiev’s First, Winter Daydreams, is simply gorgeous. The combination of panache, finesse and imagination in the first movement is wonderful: you can almost feel the chill on the rosy cheeks of Romanov aristocrats with exquisite noses and perfect cheekbones, as they travel through the wondrous winter landscape, swathed in sable in a troika. The tender phrasing of the second subject is worth the price of the set alone. The second movement is a wistful reverie and the scherzo is jewel-like. I’ve often regarded the Second Symphony, the so-called Little Russian, aka Ukraine, as…

November 14, 2012
CD and Other Review

Review: Brahms: The Symphonies (Berliner Philharmoniker, Simon Rattle)

It was interesting, that despite his considerable discography, none of his recordings was considered good enough for the recent ABC Classic FM Symphony Countdown, confirming my theory that Rattle’s never recorded anything that hasn’t been done better by at least several other conductors. This Brahms cycle, virtually a rite of passage for Chief Conductors of the Berlin Philharmonic, doesn’t have any startling revelations, but is unlikely to disappoint either and improves as it progresses. To describe the playing as wonderful is hardly revelatory either. Rattle certainly unleashes the incomparable firepower in the finale of the First and, somewhat inappropriately, in the first movement of the Second Symphony – no pastoral idyll here. The Third Symphony receives a glowing performance with steady tempos and the intermezzo-like third movement has a particularly autumnal radiance. The visionary Fourth is sublime from start to finish, with the tango-like rhythm of the opening especially seductive in Rattle’s hands and the passacaglia finale (Brahms’s greatest symphonic movement?) sublimely phrased. My two quibbles are that Rattle does not observe the first movement repeats in the First and Second Symphonies, yet does in the third. The other is the atrociously niggardly playing… Continue reading Get unlimited digital access…

January 19, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: PROKOFIEV Suites (baritone: Andrei Laptev, soprano: Jacqueline Porter; SSO/Ashkenazy)

Nothing lightweight about this collection of orchestral works by Prokofiev, beginning with the sound. Even in regular stereo it is vivid, and reproduces an accurate concert hall balance. My one sonic reservation concerns the swinging trumpet in Lieutenant Kijé, presumably principal Paul Goodchild: he’s too far away! The Lieutenant Kijé Suite is taken from a 1933 film score. The satirical story of a fictitious scapegoat in the Tsar’s army brought out the composer’s cheeky side, but there is lyricism too. Ashkenazy’s easygoing performance is one of the few on disc to utilise a singer: the pleasant, open baritone of Andrei Laptev. That commedia-dell-arte romp The Love of Three Oranges was premiered in Chicago. To be honest, the best music of the opera appears in the five-movement suite. Ashkenazy doesn’t make the mistake of rushing the famous March, while the Scherzo is brilliantly light on its feet with just enough of a sinister undercurrent. The Ugly Duckling, Op 18, is rarely recorded. Stylistically it epitomises the gentler side of early Prokofiev, along with the Autumnal Sketch, Op 8 and the Piano Sonata No 4, “From Old Notebooks”. Prokofiev colours the story with a Russian slant. Porter brings it off very well….

January 12, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: ARVO PÄRT Symphony No 4

An early disillusionment with neo-classical and serial trends helped kick-start a radically minimal approach. This is the latest in a long line of Pärt releases on ECM. It’s difficult, then, not to measure it against his earlier discs, including landmarks like Passio and Tabula Rasa. In such company, I’m not entirely convinced by this album. It contains two relatively recent works, written a decade apart. The first, and more successful, is Kanon Pokajanen from 1997. It’s beautiful, classic Pärt – a smooth sound sculpture in which every contour is audible and every line counts. The text is the Canon of Repentance, an Orthodox hymn from the 8th century, sung in Old Church Slavonic. The singing here is gloriously full, transcribing the rich resonance of the Niguliste Church in Tallinn, Estonia. Pärt evidently took his time, spending an “enriching” two years writing it, and it paid off.The Symphony No 4 is a different matter. By its nature Pärt’s music is sparse; however, this piece seems in search of a core. It has all of his trademarks: pockets of sound balanced with silence; high strings; occasional pizzicato flourishes. Yet its greater purpose eludes me. Perhaps it’s the symphonic tag. Part’s previous symphonies…

January 12, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: HALVORSEN Orchestral Works Volume 2 (violin: Marianne Thorsen, Bergen Phil/Järvi)

Johan Halvorsen was always an essential mention on any “one hit wonders” list of classical composers, known exclusively for his Entry of the Boyars. I missed Volume 1 of this series but I’m just as enthusiastic about Volume 2 as everyone seemed to be about its predecessor. Grieg himself loved these scores. Much of the music (Three Norwegian Dances, Air Norvégian and Chant de Veslemöy) features violin solos, delightfully played here by Marianne Thorsen. The second longest piece is the Suite ancienne, formed from entr’acts for the incidental music for Holberg’s (as in Grieg’s Holberg suite) play The Lying-in Room. It’s a skilful pastiche of 18th-century dance forms. My assessment of Halvorsen as a Nordic Eric Coates or Leroy Anderson was completely confounded when I heard the Second Symphony: it reinforced my amazement at how many seriously first-rate symphonies were composed by seriously obscure composers. This one is a little gem, with a recurring “fate” motive in all four movements (à la Tchaikovsky), a delicious oboe melody in the slow movement, reminiscent of the one in the slow movement of Bizet’s Symphony and a lovely intermezzo. All in under 28 minutes. An absolute winner!

January 12, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: Britten, Ravel, Kleinsinger: The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra; Mother Goose Suite; Tubby the Tuba (Narrators: Christopher Lawrence, Marian Arnold, Emma Ayres; SSO/Northey)

As to Ravel’s Mother Goose Suite, if there is a more radiantly beautiful piece of fairy tale music ever written, I doubt I’ve heard it. Musically, George Kleinsinger’s score for Tubby is very professional and works a treat. The American composer seems destined only to be remembered for this clever and delightful work, as we don’t hear much about his musical Shinbone Alley any longer.The Sydney Symphony Orchestra plays the Ravel better than it does the Britten (during which all concerned seem a bit indifferent). As there are plenty of excellent recordings for adults of this music, I assume the slightly patronising tone adopted by two of the readers is aimed at younger persons. Fair enough, though I would have thought such an approach a bit dangerous these days. Marian Arnold does “put on dog” a bit and even Christopher Lawrence, who has such a witty and droll radio style, seems less relaxed than usual. Emma Ayres is the most suited to her part in Tubby the Tuba, striking just the right balance. Conductors Benjamin Northey and Marc Taddei get their respective jobs done well, although I remain cool towards the overly reverberant recording of the Britten.

January 12, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: TCHAIKOVSKY The Nutcracker (Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra/Rattle)

Tchaikovsky’s ballets are the chick flicks of classical music, but like the best chick flicks they can be witty and reveal a light touch. The Nutcracker is crammed with memorable tunes and piquant orchestration – including the recently invented celeste in the Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy – and shows the composer at the peak of his abilities in the famous point numbers of Act 2. The Waltz of the Flowers lilts as flightily as anything by Johannes Strauss. Right from the opening Miniature Overture we know we are in for some magic. Last year, Australian audiences got to sample the Berlin Phil in the flesh. They sounded impressive live, and do so again here. This is a lush orchestra, not a theatre pit band, and under Rattle they give a full-hearted performance. The conductor points and details the lyrical phrases, sometimes too indulgently, but his relaxed tempos never drag. The sound is good if a little dry, and rather light at the bass end of the spectrum. This is a double CD set, unlike Gergiev’s tougher, snappier version, but the extra outlay is worth it. Rattle’s discs come with a colourful booklet filled with beautifully reproduced costume designs,…

January 11, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: Debussy: Fantaisie for Piano and Orchestra; Ravel: Piano Concerto in G; Concerto for the Left Hand; Massenet: Piano works (Jean-Efflam Bavouzet, BBC Symphony Orc

Ravel’s wonderful Piano Concerto in G continues to be one of the most popular in the concert hall and on record, but each time I hear it I am made aware of how difficult the perfect ensemble playing is to achieve. His Concerto for the Left Hand requires a different approach, for here the broad sweep of Ravel’s ideas are paramount. Mostly this is achieved in this excellent recording. Only the rapid-fire trumpets in the explosion of sound at the five-minute mark are lost. Bavouzet is at his eloquent best in the slower movements of both concerti. Debussy’s piece is a mixture of old and new, and although not top-drawer Debussy, it is a delightful work. This, and a selection of Massenet’s piano music, is what separates this CD from the pack. It is rare repertoire and unfamiliar to me. I think lovers of French piano music will be as delighted as I was. Massenet’s Toccata is a brilliant piece and although it predates much of Ravel, is very companionable. Deux Impromtus and Deux Pièces pour piano find Massenet in a more mellifluous mood. Finally Valse folle is quite rambunctious and punchy. Bavouzet plays all the music exquisitely. Never lacking…

January 11, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: Brahms: Symphony No 4, Beethoven: Coriolan Overture (Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique; The Monteverdi Choir/Gardiner)

At first glance, Gabrieli and Schütz, glorious as they are, seem to be at odds with the symphony. Gardiner’s notes are the key to this collation. Using original instruments he has juxtaposed the symphony with some of the composer’s neglected choral music. He argues that as these wonderful works came first they are germane to his orchestral writing. The other composers were selected for their influence on his choral style and the Coriolan Overture represents the defining shadow of Beethoven. This is steely, hard-edged tough as nails Brahms. There will be those for whom this is heaven-sent, yet for all Gardiner’s dedication and well-argued rationale, much of this performance is a tiresome dose of musical political correctness. For example, the scrawny violin tone does not sit well with the composer’s grand phrases and rich palette. However, his approach works well in the lively Allegro giocoso, with its sharp rhythms and bright woodwind writing and also serves the edgy restlessness of the last movement. Musical research will continue and performance practice will evolve, as it should. Tastes will change and change again. I recommend the CD for the extensive interview between Gardiner and Hugh Wood. That alone is worth the price…

January 11, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: Goetz, Wieniawski: Piano Concertos (Hamish Milne)

Hermann Goetz spent most of his life under the shadow of TB, which claimed him just before he turned 36. Judging by his letters, Goetz was as polite and charming as this concerto. Thankfully, the orchestration, so often thick and unoriginal, is refreshingly transparent and the melodies fall gratefully on the ear. If I had to guess the composer, I’d say Max Bruch, although there are inevitable echoes of Schumann and Chopin. The first movement ambles along genially and the second is delightful in a sentimental way. Things liven up slightly in the finale but, come on guys, at 41 minutes this work is only seven minutes shorter than your average Brahms Second Piano Concerto, and look at how much he managed to pack into that! The other work, by Józef Wieniawski, brother of the more famous violin virtuoso and composer Henryk, was actually composed almost a decade earlier than Goetz’s, but seems more modern. I can’t agree with the sleeve note writer that the character of this work represents Sturm und Drang, implying a fusion of tension and drama, and a relentless barrage of bravura playing. I found it only slightly more energetic than its companion. Both works are…

January 11, 2011